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Dirty Business?

November 29, 2005

Increasing numbers of students and faculty members say the University of Miami isn’t following its own progressive rhetoric when it comes to the lives of its janitorial staff.

Maria Galindo, one such staff member, is a mother to three kids, all under age 13. Eric, 10, her youngest, has been diagnosed with autism. Each day, after working a full shift the night before, Galindo wakes up at 7 a.m. to get her kids ready for school. Then she prepares the kids’ lunches, sees them off the school, does laundry and runs errands.

The breadwinner of her household, Galindo makes about $11,000 a year for a full eight hours of work each night as a janitor at the University of Miami’s Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She doesn’t have health insurance; instead she and her kids rely on Medicaid, where bills for her own thyroid condition and her son’s health needs have costs thousands of dollars over the past year. Since Medicaid doesn’t pay for all of her bills, Galindo is working with her doctor to create apayment installment plan for the approximately $1,600 she owes.

Galindo is one of about 400 janitors, living in or close to poverty, employed by the UNICCO company and working at the University of Miami, which recently released a report called "Energizing South Florida’s Future." The report hails the university’s “substantial impact as a key driver of the South Florida economy, as well as its role as a powerful intellectual and research engine, its active construction program, and initiatives it pursues to enhance the quality of lifethroughout the community.”

Given the university’s boasts, the union that wants to represent Miami’s lowest paid employees -- the Service Employees International Union -- is trying to draw attention to their salaries. Coordinators have created a Web site, organized student and faculty support and contacted local churches to help put pressure on the university. Union organizers have also been actively engaged in trying to get employees to sign petitions to join the union.

Fair pay issues have snagged the spotlight on a number of campuses lately, including at Washington University in St. Louis, where students held a 19-day protest this year in support of janitors, groundskeepers, and other non-professional university employees. The end result was more money for the employees. On November 18, after intense student pressure on Harvard’s administration, the union representing 340 of the university’s janitors was able to ratify a new six-year contract that will increase starting wages to $18.50 per hour.

Galindo used to get an hour-long break at 10 p.m. each night to check in on her kids. But she says that her supervisors at the contract company she works for, UNICCO, have been much more strict as of late -- cutting break times, and increasing the number of rooms she has to clean. Galindo also says that they’ve begun making workers use a new cleaning product that has caused employees to get bloody noses and feel light-headed.

For the Miami resident, not knowing English hasn’t been much of a hindrance in the 15 years she’s been living in the United States, of which she is a legal citizen. Most of the janitors at the university are documented political refugees from Cuba and Haiti.

“I’m working as hard as I can,” said Galindo last week with the aid of a translator, indicating that, despite the conditions, she wishes she could work more hours to earn more money.  “My family barley survives -- we’re living check to check. I feel desperate.”

While the university’s president, Donna Shalala, spoke vocally about the needs of low-income people, especially for health insurance, while serving as the Clinton administration’s secretary of health and human services, she “is not speaking on this issue at this time,” according to a spokeswoman for the university.

Roosevelt Thomas, the university’s vice president of human resources, said in a recent interview that the university remains “neutral” in its assessment of UNICCO’s relationship with its employees.  “We’ve been criticized,” he said. “But that’s the position we agreed to.”

Dozens of students have in fact shown up at union-organized protests in recent weeks to express their distaste for the university’s position. “It’s ridiculous that the official stance of the university and this administration is one of neutrality,” said Patrick Walsh, a fourth-year architecture student and chair of Students Toward a New Democracy. “This means that they don’t want to take responsibility for the conditions suffered because they feel it’s UNICCO’s liability.

“We’re focusing on getting the word out on the conditions of UNICCO workers,” continued Walsh. “People know that these workers aren’t treated that well -- it’s almost assumed. But, I mean, it’s easily pushed into the back of your mind.”

Some faculty members, too, are becoming engaged. Michael Fischl, a law professor, told The Miami Herald that “[the university] trims operating costs by hiring outside firms to provide various services, including food and security services as well as custodial and landscaping work. But cost-cutting is never the only concern. The university would not, for example, try to save money by hiring a meal vendor that cut costs by neglecting food safety or a security firm that cut costs by dispensing with background checks for its employees.Yet university officials exhibit no such scruples when it comes to contractors that cut costs by paying poverty-level wages."

UNICCO spokesman Doug Bailey said that the company would consider paying employees more money, if the university wanted to renegotiate its contract, which has been in place since 1996.

The presence of organizers with the SEIU union, which represents about 1.3 million service workers, on campus in recent months has complicated the situation -- for both UNICCO and the university.

“We want the University of Miami to adopt a responsible contracting policy,” said Renee Asher, an SEIU official. She noted that at least 100 universities have policies that require affordable health insurance for all employees and provide wage parity for staff that are hired through contractors who work for the university with staff that are directly paid by a university.

“In places where contractors have to compete on quality of service, wages go up because now everybody’s going to have to get paid the same wage,” she added. “When contractors have to bid for services based solely on price, what you get is a situation where the lowest bid wins by lowering wages.”

Thomas said last week that, while the university remains neutral, officials are also “concerned” and “would like to see employees vote on the union.”

Still, because union organizing is against the university’s solicitation policy, Thomas said there “are no exceptions for union members” who try to rally support on campus. If they do so, they will be asked to leave, and could be ushered off campus by police.

Meanwhile, SEIU organizers say they’ve received reports from various janitors who’ve said that UNICCO has been holding “captive audience meetings” and have “sat them down in rooms to preach anti-union rhetoric.”

Responding to that allegation, Bailey says that janitors have also reported that SEIU members have been “harassing” them. “There’s been no pressure, no coercion, no threats [by UNICCO officials],” he said.

Galindo, who has signed a petition to call for union representation, is confident that things will change someday:  “The university is very responsible and should not accept a company that pays such low wages. I think the union will help us.”

 

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